Facing a generation in declining health
August 20, 2008
Middle-aged Americans today report poorer health, more pain and more difficulty with everyday tasks than older Americans did at the same age. So says a new analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Comparing persons born in the period 1948 to 1953 with those born between 1936 and 1941, the younger group today reports having more trouble than the older group had at the same age with walking, climbing steps or doing other physical tasks. They also are less likely to report having excellent health than the older group did when they were in their 50s.
The most likely reason for the deterioration of middle-aged health is the rising burden of chronic diseases: diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure and chronic back pain, among others.
Another new study, this one by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, found that nearly six out of 10 American adults older than 18 have at least one chronic medical condition. For those age 55 to 64, the prevalence is nearly 80 percent, with one in five of these adults having two or more chronic conditions.
All this suggests that despite decades of improved living standards, and countless medical advances, there is a widening web of chronic illness that accounts for enormous suffering for many millions of people born during the baby-boom years.
Their suffering also is an expensive drain on the economy: Of the nearly $2 trillion spent annually on the medical care of American adults, the AHRQ estimates that about 90 percent now is consumed on people with chronic diseases. Among those age 55 to 64, chronic diseases eat up nearly 96 percent of health-care spending.
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Better access to medical care and new treatments could help, but the only sure way out of the chronic-disease crisis is prevention.
Fortunately, there is new evidence that preventive measures taken in middle age can promptly yield significant benefits. In a new paper titled “Turning Back the Clock: Adopting a Healthy Lifestyle in Middle Age,” researchers found that middle-aged adults who adopted four healthy lifestyle habits reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by 35 percent in just four years.
At the same time, they cut their risk of death from all causes by 40 percent.
The four habits were eating at least five fruits and vegetables a day, walking for 150 minutes a week or more, not becoming obese and not smoking.
Study participants who adopted only three of the healthy habits saw benefits, too, but the changes were less impressive.
The bottom line is obvious: anything you can do to embrace a healthier lifestyle, at any age, isn’t a wasted effort. If you are a baby boomer, take note: lifestyle measures you start today may yield huge dividends when you retire, adding years to your life and more enjoyable life to your years.
— Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D., is the El Dorado County health officer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.